An Open Letter to Principal Woolf (15 March 2010)

As posted in QUFA Forum, 15 March 2010:

From: Johanne Bénard (Head of Department of French Studies)
Lynda Jessup (Director of the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies)
Clarke Mackey (Head of Department of Film and Media)
Clive Robertson (Acting Head of Department of Art)

15 March 2010

Dear Principal Woolf

What follows is a response by some Arts and Science heads to the academic planning process now underway at Queen’s.

First of all, in our opinion, Where Next? makes many excellent points. In fact, there is little to quarrel with here. Your focus on innovation, interdisciplinarity, internationalization, and Queen’s reputation is well placed. The proposals for rethinking curriculum and research in light of twenty-first century priorities and funding realities are wise. We’re particularly pleased with your advocacy for “social spaces and having conversations,” and our relationships beyond the ivory tower. In our experience, Where Next? describes what many individuals and units at Queen’s are already doing or planning to undertake.

The problem with Where Next?, however, is in what is missing from the document. There are three major concerns. …

The process for discussing and deciding on how to move forward seems flawed. As described, a series of documents are to be forwarded to an appointed committee that will make the final recommendations to you, the Board of Trustees, and the university. For the most part, internal discussion within units has been going on for some time. The process described pits one unit against another, with each attempting to justify its legitimacy in a battle over increasingly scarce resources. What is desperately needed is meaningful dialogue and debate among units and faculties. The synergies, commitment, and consensus necessary for implementing change can come only from a comprehensive conversation with all the stakeholders: administrators, faculty, students, and staff. Put simply, you will need lots of “buy in” to make the changes you feel are necessary. Without such a conversation, change is imposed from above. Disastrous consequences are inevitable.

Under the heading “Some Possible Institutional Priorities,” there is no mention of humanities in general, or of communications, culture, and the arts more specifically. Of course, your list is tentative and presented as a starting point for discussion but, nonetheless, the oversight is disturbing. The study of culture has become a de facto area of excellence and synergy at this institution in countless ways. Besides the focus of the four creative arts departments of Art, Drama, Film, and Music, how people communicate and represent and imagine the world is a core concern of a majority of the twenty-seven Arts and Science departments: English, Gender Studies (mass media, popular culture), Sociology (mass media, communications, new technologies, surveillance), Geography (known for its cultural geographers and study of non-Western cultures), Global Development Studies (one person was recently hired to focus on culture and development in particular), Political Studies (mass media and democracy), Computing (special field in Computing and the Creative Arts, for example), History (several cultural historians), Psychology (cross-cultural psychology), Philosophy (philosophies of art, multiculturalism, ethics), Classics, French, German, Spanish and Italian (historical and national cultures), Kinesiology (culture and sport), Religious Studies, and more. Outside of Arts and Science, we know of collaborations and shared interests with Education (many links and cross-appointments), Law (copyright issues, for example), and the School of Business (annual Business and the Arts conference, for example). It is interesting to note that most of the units listed participate in the new Cultural Studies graduate program, itself an excellent example of interdisciplinarity and innovation.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is no direct discussion of university finances in Where Next? The “financial crisis” of the last two years has generated anxiety, despair and cynicism in many quarters, especially among those who are most vulnerable to “downsizing.” An open and candid discussion of the institution’s actual situation, how we got there, and viable options for the future must take place at the “shop floor,” so to speak, not just at the higher levels of the administration. Two specific questions come to mind.

In a January 14, 2010 article in Maclean’s magazine entitled “Where all that Money is Going,” university consultant W. D. Smith analyses statistics available from the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO) looking back over 21 years of data from Canada’s top 25 universities, including Queen’s. He noted a significant decline in the percentage of expenditures going to general operating expenses (including faculty salaries and other costs of teaching) compared with the universities’ overall budgets (67.1 per cent to 54.8 per cent). For the G13, which includes Queen’s, the cutback averages $35 million per year per institution. The reason, he states, is “in large part … because of skyrocketing central administrative costs.” For G13, the difference in percentage going to central administration works out to about $20 million more per year. He also points out that faculty salaries, as a percentage of general operating expenses, have declined from 64.2 per cent in 1987-88 to 57.6 per cent in 2009. The university community as a whole needs to discuss the significance of these data in relation to the academic planning exercise we are now in, especially in light of the move to a more expensive Provost model at the university’s highest level of administration at the same time that both unionized and non-unionized employees are being asked to reduce their salary demands.

Another related issue that has to be discussed openly is the assumption that the university must avoid deficit financing at all costs — costs that could include a serious reduction in the university’s reputation as perceived by students, alumni, and the general public. With current interest rates at a historic low and likely to remain below average in the foreseeable future, and while the university appears to have millions of dollars available in “unrestricted reserves” ($193 million according to a 2009 DBRS report), it seems counterintuitive to many that the Board of Trustees is so anxious to resist a deficit. Retirements and resignations of faculty and staff, over the next five years, if not replaced, would provide much of the “structural adjustment” necessary for sustainability (and dealing with deficits) in the long term.

Notwithstanding the ideas articulated so well in Where Next?, the projected cuts to the university’s operating budget have the potential to do irreparable damage to the institution, and thus to the “Queen’s brand.” The consequences on student demand, alumni support, faculty retention and renewal, to name a few, would be considerable.

Here are two more retrospective histories:

History C:
Faced with rising costs and diminishing revenues, Canadian universities continued to struggle well into the second decade of the century. After imposing draconian cuts to its operating expenses and collapsing of many of its smaller programs, Queen’s University suffered a long and fractious faculty strike, followed less than a year later with a strike by its recently unionized staff. Student enrolment and alumni support suffered a sharp decline, putting even further pressure on its already constrained revenue sources. The school’s reputation never recovered and, in 2019, Queen’s University became an undergraduate feeder campus for the University of Toronto.

History D:
Faced with rising costs and diminishing revenues, Canadian universities continued to struggle well into the second decade of the century. At Queen’s University, Principal Woolf organized a series of open meetings with faculty, staff, and students, in which a consensus was reached about how to move forward. Agreements among all sectors of the institution, including faculty, staff, and student groups were negotiated. Small but important programs, particularly in the humanities, languages, and the arts, were protected from closure, and there was a significant reduction in the size and cost of university administration. As a result, Queen’s remained a highly desirable place to study and work in 2020 and beyond.

We know which one we would prefer.

Respectfully submitted,

(in alphabetical order)
Johanne Bénard (Head of Department of French Studies)
Lynda Jessup (Director of the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies)
Clarke Mackey (Head of Department of Film and Media)
Clive Robertson (Acting Head of Department of Art)

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